The Complicated Case of Hispanic Voters

‘The Hispanic Republican’
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A woman holds a Latinos for Trump sign during President Trump’s re-election rally in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, September 16, 2019 (Alamy/Justin Hamel).

After studying in England for a year, I returned to the United States in summer of 2017. A new Republican president had been inaugurated that winter; my grandfather had died that spring. By the time I got back to California, my dad had already collected some of my grandfather’s personal effects. Among the items were family photographs, bottles of rum and mint liqueur, and a note of congratulations from President Bill Clinton on White House letterhead. (“Hillary and I welcome you as a new citizen and extend our best wishes for much happiness in the future.”) But what I found most interesting was a navy-blue ball cap commemorating the 2005 inauguration of George W. Bush. My dad didn’t know where my grandfather had gotten it.

My grandparents immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1960s. My dad is the youngest of their eight children, born after the family had settled in America, just a few months before John F. Kennedy was shot. My grandfather generally had been a pro-labor Democrat, but took a brief detour during the George W. Bush administration. As a cousin explained to me in a recent text message, “Yeah, things got weird after 9/11 and Bush pretended to say a few words in Spanish.” My grandfather supported the wars and national-security measures that followed. Eventually, in his last years, he switched back to voting for Democrats. He’d always liked Bill Clinton, and supported Hillary Clinton in 2016.  

The historian Geraldo Cadava’s grandfather also flipped from Democrat to Republican, though his conversion stuck. The fierce political debates he used to have with his grandfather spurred him to write The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump. Cadava’s goal in publishing the book was to explode the myth that the growth of the Hispanic population in the United States will inexorably lead to a permanent Democratic majority. He rightfully underscores the difficulty in applying tidy ideological labels to Hispanics. Many, such as my grandfather, both believe in more generous immigration policies and have patriotic pride in their adopted country. Still others are socially conservative, but might hold more progressive views on the economy.

Cadava focuses on the nearly one-third of Hispanics who lean Republican: in 2016, 28 percent of Hispanics voted for Trump, compared to 27 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012 and 31 percent for John McCain in 2008—a decline from the 40 percent Bush garnered in 2004. “Although the majority of Hispanics or Latinos vote for Democrats,” Cadava writes, it’s also important to understand these Republican Hispanics, “because if we do not, either because we continue to insist that [Hispanics] are part of the liberal majority, or because Hispanic identity itself is too diverse to describe categorically, then we’ll miss something fundamental about Hispanics in the United States and therefore about the United States itself.” Although Cadava mainly discusses presidential politics, he also notes that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz bested challenger Beto O’Rourke in their 2018 senate race due, in part, to his support from Hispanic Republicans.

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Cadava argues, mostly convincingly, that the support Republicans receive from Hispanics is the result of decades of cultivation and organization. For the past seventy years, he suggests, a confluence of factors—including patronage, anti-communist posturing, and candidate-specific traits—have driven turnout among Hispanic Republicans. The last of these is especially important: Eisenhower led the United States to victory in World War II, Nixon and Reagan were anti-communist Californians amenable to immigration reform, and both George Bushes seemed more moderate on immigration than others in their party. In recent years, however, that seems to have changed. Cadava charts a significant shift among Hispanic Republicans away from that emphasis on candidates. The Hispanic Republican leaders Cadava interviewed for the book—sixteen in total—said they didn’t like Trump personally and instead had come to value party loyalty. But in seeking an answer to the question he raises—why the shift from man to party?—Cadava focuses too much on the gestures and symbols, and not enough on continuities in Republican leadership, chief among them an aversion to social spending.

As it turns out, the founders of a pioneering Hispanic Republican organization supported the party for one of the same reasons white Republicans do: opposition to wealth redistribution.

“Latinos con Eisenhower,” formed by a Mexican American named John Flores, was the first full-throated organizing effort by Hispanic Republicans. In Cadava’s telling, postwar social mobility was a major catalyst for activism. The war had given them “skills that led to successful careers, paid for their education, and helped them purchase homes, often outside of the barrios where they grew up.” In the 1960s, when the New Deal coalition began to break apart, a group of well-off, Mexican-American World War II–veterans formed a political organization that would later be known as the Republican National Hispanic Assembly (RNHA). They argued that the Democratic Party, to which many Hispanic Americans had been loyal since the Great Depression, was taking them for granted. A co-founder of the group, Fernando Oaxaca, after earning a degree that was subsidized by the GI Bill, “resented that the taxes he paid were redistributed” to people who supposedly didn’t work as hard as he did to achieve financial success. As it turns out, the founders of a pioneering Hispanic Republican organization supported the party for one of the same reasons white Republicans do: opposition to wealth redistribution.

It was during the Nixon years that a full-fledged patronage machine and a coherent national strategy for turning out Hispanic Republicans emerged, which Cadava details in a chapter called “Nixon’s Republicans.” By the 1970s, the RNHA had amassed considerable influence. Benjamin Fernandez, one of the organization’s founders, became the first chairman of the National Economic Development Association (NEDA), a cornerstone of Nixon’s “brown capitalism” initiative. Denouncing the antipoverty programs of the 1960s, President Nixon directed the Small Business Administration to require the federal government’s procurement agencies to patronize minority-owned businesses, though the results were mixed. (Cadava quotes the Los Angeles Times reporter Rueben Salazar: “In the barrio Chicanos immediately started calling NEDA, NADA, which in Spanish spells ‘nothing.’”) On the patronage front, Nixon appointed more Hispanics than any previous chief executive, including the first Hispanic treasurer of the United States (Romana Acosta Bañuelos) and the first Hispanic administrator of the Small Business Administration (Hilary Sandoval). His reelection campaign relied on this network of high-profile surrogates, who crisscrossed the country for him. Cadava suggests that the tour worked. Nixon earned a third of the Hispanic vote in 1972, more than any Republican before him.   

A pattern soon emerges in Cadava’s book: attentive cultivation of Hispanic Republicans by way of high-level appointments, symbolic gestures, and apparent empathy. In the years after Nixon’s victory, the Republican National Committee made the RNHA an “official auxiliary.” Nixon seemed to understand the importance of symbolism—in addition to the appointments and network of surrogates already described, he hosted the first Spanish-language Mass at the White House. Gerald Ford handled such matters more clumsily; he famously tanked in the 1976 Texas primary after biting into a tamal without removing the cornhusk. Closer to the present, George W. Bush’s relative popularity with Hispanic voters was not only due to a post–9/11 surge in jingoistic fervor. Hispanics noticed that he spoke Spanish, made enchiladas, and shucked his tamales. For Cadava, these symbolic gestures have been centrally important in building trust with Republican Hispanic voters and securing their partisan loyalties. After all, how else could Trump win nearly a third of the Hispanic vote, the same as his predecessors, after calling Mexicans rapists and promising to build “The Wall”?    

This is where Cadava’s argument comes up short. While it’s true that symbolism such as speaking Spanish or knowing how to eat tamales, as well as having high-profile Hispanic Republican surrogates, is a part of the story—as I’m sure it was for my grandfather—his argument relies far too much on these factors. Throughout the book, Cadava returns to an imagined America that holds appeal for Hispanic Republicans: a midcentury mythos promoting the country as a super-guardian of freedom and democracy in a world threatened by communist tyranny. This imagery has anchored Republican sloganeering since the Cold War, and for much of the latter half of the twentieth century, anti-communism served as both a campaign issue and a barometer of Americanness. Cadava helpfully looks beyond the “anti-Castro Cuban” archetype in favor of a more expansive view of who constitutes the Hispanic electorate, encompassing immigrants who fled conflict in Mexico and Central America. Ronald Reagan, in particular, was seen as an anti-communist cowboy. During his reelection campaign, U.S. Treasurer Katherine Ortega, a prominent Hispanic Reagan-Bush supporter, told crowds that the Carter-Mondale administration’s weak leadership had “‘left the door open’ to Communist threats far and near.”

But what was the substance of this American mythology? For Hispanic Republicans, it most of all has been the idea that hard work would lead to success—the promise of upward mobility. And if you consider yourself a hard worker deserving of wealth and status, you’ll always be able to find a scapegoat to deem undeserving and less hardworking: a drain on resources. Cadava is most persuasive whenever he tentatively edges toward the importance of anti-Blackness to the story he tells, hinting at the importance that the architecture of whiteness—and the yearning for proximity to whiteness—plays in American politics.

Cadava never connects these dots, never seems to fully grasp that far more than symbols are at work in allegiances of Hispanic Republicans.

In his 1966 California gubernatorial campaign, Cadava writes, Reagan courted middle-class Mexican Americans by supporting the overturn of the Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963, which sought to end housing discrimination in the state. “They didn’t want anyone to be able to tell them whom they could rent or sell to,” Cadava writes. Likewise, Nixon decided to invest time and energy in Hispanics only after reading Kevin Phillips’s The Emerging Republican Majority (1969), which claimed that “it would be a waste of time” to court Black Americans. A confidential memo from Ford’s 1976 campaign shows Republican strategists plotting to “show the Chicanos we’ll do more for them and not prefer the negroes (as the Democrats do).” John Flores, who supported Kennedy after running Latinos con Eisenhower, formed “Latinos con Goldwater” when Kennedy didn’t appoint as many Mexican Americans to his administration as Flores would have liked. Cadava quotes one Flores ally: “Kennedy’s emphasis on ‘Negro recognition’ aggravated the ‘problems faced by Latin Americans.’ Hispanics ‘used to be second class citizens,’ he said, but ‘now we’re being relegated to third class status.’” One can’t help but read and wonder: How did Hispanic Republicans react to Reagan’s “welfare queen” rhetoric? Or the George H. W. Bush campaign’s racist Willie Horton ad?

Cadava never connects these dots, never seems to fully grasp that far more than symbols are at work in allegiances of Hispanic Republicans. Even the nomenclature that gives his book its name intimates this problem. Often a point of contention, the term “Hispanic” connotes Spanish ancestry, a heritage that many Hispanic Republicans—prominent among them Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans—have emphasized. As Cadava puts it, “Their families did come from Spain, they say, and Spaniards brought to the Americas much that was good.” It’s a way of identifying with white America, rather than other racial or ethnic minorities—and therefore identifying with white America’s investment in much of the political and economic status quo.

Hispanic Republicans have faced two major loyalty tests, according to Cadava: first during their party’s nativist lurch in the 1990s, then during a similar rash of anti-immigrant sentiment in the 2010s. In the early 1990s, when Pat Buchanan was an influential figure in Republican politics, George H. W. Bush seemed like a moderating force in the party. Rita DiMartino, the head of the RNHA at the time, dismissed Buchanan as a mischief maker. In 2016, a similar mischief maker became the nominee. Nevertheless, most longtime Republican voters Cadava interviewed simply couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a Democrat. It was the ultimate proof of the limited explanatory power of symbols and gesture in understanding Hispanic Republicans.

For all the ways Donald Trump departed from political norms, he also has cut taxes on the rich, like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan before him. His administration has worked to enfeeble antipoverty programs, just as his predecessors did. Trump is as much in continuity with the GOP of decades past as he is a novel force in the party. Cadava never explores these continuities with the seriousness and focus they deserve—and it is these continuities that explain why, despite his xenophobia and bigotry, and even despite the photos of mostly Latin American children in cages, Hispanic Republicans have stuck with him.

The Hispanic Republican 
The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump

Geraldo Cadava
Ecco
$29.99 | 448 pp.

Brandon Sanchez is an audience voices reporter at The Wall Street Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at @offbrandsanchez.

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